I bought a pair of $40 Levi’s 501 Shrink-to-Fit blue jeans this evening.
Blue jeans are quite possibly the most enduring icon of American fashion. They have been around at least since the days of prospectors in the California Gold Rush, and remain more or less the same pantaloons today that they were 150 years ago. They are arguably the first original American clothing item, and so it is fitting, perhaps, that they are also the clothing item that seems the most susceptible to the meddlings of that pesky American drive to increase the profit margin in absurd ways.
Blue jeans are, by their nature, durable. Denim, in its raw, unwashed form, is stronger than canvas. Jeans are not only sewn together; they are also riveted together. In Levi Strauss’ mind, they were pants for guys to wear when they had to slide down rock faces, wade into creeks, and fight wolves with their hands. Ordinary canvas simply would not do the job. To the prospector, farmer, or general ruffian, the most important characteristic of the blue jean was its hardiness. Paired with this hardiness were the jeans’ relative cost; no trouser of wool, silk, cotton, or linen offered the length of service-to-cost ratio of the jean. In the rapidly expanding USA of the mid-19th century, the jeans caught on.
[A small confession: I am an idealist. I am also a perfectionist. In practice, this means that I tend to reject a lot of innovation, particularly if said innovation is pointless, irrational, and baldly money-grubbing. With respect to jeans, this means that I reject things like washes, pre-shrinking, and pre-breaking. In my mind, these actions are counter to the very essence of the blue jean, in being that they simultaneously damage the durability of the denim while driving up the cost of the jean due to extra labor and materials. Plus, you end up with a pair of pants that comes with a handful of sand in the pockets (maybe the sand is factored into the increased cost, too, as a sort of extra feature?)]
The other beautiful thing about jeans is that raw denim breaks in over time, with the creases, the joints, the textures softening in perfect harmony with the wearer’s individual shape. The denim stays rigid where need be, but where it needs to flex, it does so. Jeans become a personalized suit of armor. Holes may develop over time as one climbs over barbed wire fences, gets shot at by trigger-happy detectives, or hosts cockfights, but these holes do not compromise the integrity of the pant – denim is quite difficult to tear. In short, the blue jean is the first great modern pant, prête-à-porter for the difficulties of life in a rationalized agro-industrial society.
The contemporary jean is usually washed prior to purchase, sometimes with stones, sometimes with sand, sometimes with acid, always with malicious intent. Put in simple economic terms, one pays more for a jean that a) lasts half as long, b) does not fit one’s individual nooks and crannies, and c) looks ridiculous (anyone who has ever seen those jeans with the faded white areas around the butt and inside of the thigh knows this). All of this is to say that the essence of the blue jean is under fire. One could argue that jeans, in effect, are no longer jeans, but are now some other pant.
[Another small confession: I worked at J. Crew in 2003-04. I saw lots of these jeans.]
This change of essence is patently absurd. It is the result of fashion, which cares not for function, but only for form (whalebone corsets, anyone?) It is, to my mind, nothing less than the single best example of the American people, and all people under capitalism, being swayed by the desire to be fashionable. We all love to have the newest things, and we all also love nostalgia and image. Nonetheless, perhaps we need to resist those urges if we can. Imagine the following conversation (the scene: a farm supply shed in 1905):
Farmer: Good evening, sir.
Tractor salesman: Evenin’.
F: I need a tractor. I would like a tractor that will last me a long time, because that’s the responsible way to think about things, about objects, and how we use resources in a world of scarcity.
TS: Yes sir; agreed.
F: I also would like this tractor to be of recognizable quality and solid construction, because humans should take pride in the fruits of their labor.
TS: Sir, you and I are in complete agreeance on this topic. We have a lovely grey tractor here; it costs $5,000. It’s not the jim-dandyest tractor around, but it’ll cut hay slicker n’ snot on a doorknob.
F: Then that’s the machine for me, sir.
TS: Surely. However, we have some other tractors out front here that you may want to consider. For example, here is a machine – a lovely orange machine – that we’ve taken the time to dip in a vat of sulfuric acid, cover in three winters’ worth of snow and salt, and shoot up with a Colt.
F: Gosh, that looks just like my grandfather’s old tractor! It runs on steam. It was one of the first tractors ever built.
TS: A real beauty, isn’t it?
F: It sure is. Golly, with that there tractor, people would look at me and say, “By gum, he must be the hardest working farmer in the whole durn county. I bet he is some kind of fella!”
TS: They might just.
F: By gosh, I think I need that there tractor. It sure is a nice orange. How much did you say that it was gonna cost?
TS: Oh, that tractor’ll cost you $25,000.
F: Jumpin’ Jiminy! Horsefeathers! Well, I think I could scrape that up. But why so much? Why do I have to pay more for a machine that has about 10% the use value of the other one?
TS: Oh, you see, well, we have to pay the Chinese gentlemen that shot it up with their guns. Oh, and the Mexican fellers to dip it in the acid. And the salt. And, of course, there are our profits to consider…you know. Profits. The lifeblood of our fair nation.
F: They surely are that, sir. Well, do you have a telephone? I need to ring up Mary and have her wire some cash.
This is a perhaps slightly extreme and certainly tendentious example, but the principle at work deserves nothing less. Why on God’s green earth would one pay a ton more for pants that will not last nearly as long? Jeans sell for $250 that have been cut to ribbons with scissors by underpaid tubercular women in the Pearl River Delta. And they don’t fit quite right, either. What good does this do anybody? What good does it do to wear a lie, to wear pants that say “look at me, I’ve tussled in the grass with stronger men that you’ll ever know”, when in fact, all that tusslin’ is factory-made?
Now, I’m not saying that the unwashed, rock-hard 501s that I bought today are the shining light of Responsible Sustainable Capitalism With A Heart of Gold. And I have expensive tastes in many things. I do try to limit the amount of trinkets that I buy, although I’m susceptible to buying lots of cultural junk to keep my brain entertained. But surely we can see the silliness in spending more than, say, $50 on a pair of pants? If the $300 jeans were six times better, lasted six times longer, got one laid six times as often, well then, sure. Go ahead. But they don’t. (Well, they might get you laid more). (Maybe). One can maybe argue that a $60,000 car is three times better than a $20,000 car, but that’s really stretching. And one can certainly make a nuanced claim for fashion as art, as experiment, as play. But who wants to wear really expensive art? Do we need to draw the line between fashion-as-art and fashion-as-things-to-keep-us-warm?
Jeans. They’re pants that are durable. That’s the whole point. Why pay all that extra money just to have somebody else ruin ’em ahead of time for you? Ruin ’em your damn self with your living, your playing, your working. Go out and enjoy scrapping and catting. Go out and get that corn in. Go out and birth that calf. And do it in the satisfaction that every whisker, every stain, every tear is a story, a record, an image of your own experiences, not some borrowed at a great and unnecessary cost in money and human labor.